We're all aware on some level that we've learned to judge our bodies through osmosis of the culture we live in. This has been the source of choices that result in impediments to a life of flourishing. How can we stand in the way of this onslaught and replace the damaging thoughts that shape our self assessments?
In previous blogs, we’ve established that we are embodied human persons, that the body expresses the person, and that the body and the person can’t be separated. It’s now important to integrate the value of the person with the appearance of the body. In what way is the value of my person related to the way I see my body?
Well, the perceived answer quickly becomes a personal one, so I’ll just speak from my own experience. I might be able to give a good Sunday school answer, “If I had a God-made price tag attached to my person it would read, ‘PRICELESS.’” Admittedly, it’s easier for me to say this about others, but with an internal struggle, that would be invisible to you, I could admit that I am priceless because God sees us as priceless. But if I had to concede that this God-made price tag would necessarily be attached to my body that expresses my person, I would more likely cringe. I evaluate my body with a different kind of criteria and sometimes this means more to me than the value God claims that He has bestowed on me as a person. My husband and I have even occasionally started to exchange comments (when we are sure the kids aren’t around) about our aging bodies. Throw aging into the mix and the criteria with which I tend to evaluate my body’s appearance drastically reduces the number of days I can honestly assign a positive value to my own body and therefore my embodied self.
And it’s not just me. Our western culture tends to encourage us to sculpt and enhance the appearance of our bodies in an attempt to feel better about ourselves as well as to get others to notice and affirm us. But our bodies have value WAY beyond how they measure up to cultural standards of beauty. Our bodies are God’s design for expressing our person made in the image of God.
Each person - each embodied person - images God in an, “irreplaceable and unrepeatable way.” Since I am a body-person, and my body and person are inseparable, my body must be judged as priceless (both by myself and by others). It expresses the beauty of my person as a reflection of God.
THIS truth is a gift that we can give our kids and the kids we work with. Together, we can help our kids to reframe or even prevent them from internalizing the message that the body’s appearance is a source of our value and worth.
What are some practical ways to do this?
The most effective way is probably the most difficult because it requires that we as parents, grandparents, and mentors deconstruct our own beliefs that affirm the body as a source of our value. However, if we can make the effort and begin this process so that we model the truth for kids, it can still be effective. Research repeats over and over again, including across cultures that children learn what is modeled to them by their caregivers. We can demonstrate in our relationships that every body is priceless because it expresses the irreplaceable and unrepeatable beauty of the person as a reflection of God. We can model this same truth through our treatment of our own and others’ bodies.
My own daughter remarked to me the other day, “Mom, you never say anything about people being fat or skinny. You don’t talk about how people look. You don’t talk about us that way either.” This was a moment of “Yay!” and to remind me to be more consistent in my own life. Yay, that she noticed enough to say something. It was also a reminder to be more consistent and congruent because if I’m being honest, I am intentional about this around my kids, but it isn’t always the way I communicate about my own body when I’m talking with my husband or adult friends with no children around. So, it is a process and we do make mistakes, but I have seen a pay off when it comes to intentionally refusing to assign value based on physical appearance.
Recently, I came across a breakthrough article by Dr. Dan Allender that gave some direction as to how we might go about this shift in the way we judge bodies. Dan shares in the article that he experienced many childhood wounds surrounding the appearance of his nose. These wounds shaped the way he judges his own body and resulted in shame. He encountered God’s healing through a conversation with his granddaughter: “She looked again in my eyes. This time she put her hand on my nose and said, “Papa, I love your big nose.” She slipped her arm around me and gave me a child’s version of a bear hug. That night as I prayed before falling into a languid sleep, I heard Jesus ask me: “Will you let me touch your nose? Will you let me bless your face like Elsa?” What if we could touch the parts of our bodies that influenced the way we judge our own value and allowed Jesus to bless them? What if we could help our children to do the same?
Another practical approach to the value of the body is to affirm the body as an expression of who we are rather than an acceptable or unacceptable (sometimes depending on the day) accessory to who we are. Some examples here:
- When a child comments about her body’s appearance, bring the conversation back to how her body expresses her person. One example is the story of a teen who expressed serious concern over scarring from a surgical procedure. While really listening to this teen and hearing his experience, I also offered a different perspective that brought the conversation back to the whole, embodied person. “Just think of all the scars and marks that your body collects over the course of your lifetime. One of the ways your body expresses who you are is by keeping track of some of the experiences along the way that make you, you.”
- Any time you receive an innocent comment from a young child about the size or shape of your legs, any scars, shape of your tummy, or even the skin hanging on your arms, (please tell me I’m not the only one!) address your response to the body part mentioned and connect it with the way that part expresses something about you: “No one else in the whole world has my arms. My arms carried you when you were little, hold you when you’re sick, and tickle you when you ask me to. My arms help me to express my love for you and others.” “No one else in the whole world has my tummy. My tummy digests my food so that I have good energy for work or play each day.” “No one else in the whole world has my legs. My legs let me run when we play and are strong to explore with you and sometimes when you’re tired my legs help me love you well and do the walking for both of us if I carry you.”
- If you have or work with older children, make different connections. Gently but consistently challenge statements your teen makes about his body as the source of his value. Affirm your teen’s body as an unrepeatable and irreplaceable expression of who she is in those moments that she draws value from her appearance. For example: “When I look at your body, I see the beauty of your smile that makes people feel comfortable and loved!”
When we assign value based on appearance, we also are unintentionally attempting to separate the body from the person, which causes harm to the person and to ourselves. It is a detour on the path to flourishing and impedes our participation in and experience of God’s eternal exchange of love for which we were made. When I assign myself value or try to prove my value to others based on my bodily appearance, I am attempting to use my body as a source that validates me. I do harm to myself by failing to acknowledge my body-self as an irreplaceable and unrepeatable embodied image of God. Instead, I can choose to live out of the confidence that is possible if I affirm this as true. We hope for our kids to see themselves and others as whole embodied persons of inestimable value and worth. They are inundated with messages that convey the opposite; that value and worth are judged based solely on the body’s appearance. Instead of inadvertently and unintentionally affirming this damaging message, let’s work together to make sure kids understand the body’s appearance is an unrepeatable and irreplaceable expression of who we are as human persons made in God’s image. We cast a bigger and more beautiful vision for the body.
We also wanted to remind you that the topics covered in our blogs and podcasts build on each other. If some of the language or ideas in this post sound new to you, we invite you to start with the first blog entry and first podcast and read/listen from there to bring you up to where we are now. We’re happy you’re here!